America’s largest Muslim civil-rights organization is urging Amazon to sever ties with suppliers tied to forced labor in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where reports of widespread human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities have raised alarms of genocide despite Beijing’s repeated disavowals.
“Amazon’s alleged use of suppliers with links to forced labor and the genocide of Uyghurs in China would be shameful, immoral and possibly illegal,” Robert McCaw, government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement Monday.
The advocacy group also called on the Department of Justice, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate the retail Goliath’s business activities relating to China, where the ruling Communist Party has been accused of waging a campaign of repression that includes mass arbitrary detention, forced sterilization, torture, sexual abuse and religious oppression.
“The federal government must conduct a thorough investigation of Amazon’s business activities in the Uyghur region, and Amazon must stop operating in that region,” McCaw said.
The SEC declined to provide a statement, while neither the Department of Justice nor CBP immediately responded to emails seeking comment.
CAIR’s pronouncement comes on the heels of a report by the Tech Transparency Project, a research initiative of the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability, that linked five of 1,900 suppliers producing goods for Amazon’s private labels to direct or indirect Uyghur forced labor. All of them appeared in the Everything Store’s June 2021 supplier list.
“Amazon hasn’t gotten as much attention as Apple on the issue of suppliers using forced labor, but Amazon deserves just as much scrutiny,” Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director at Campaign for Accountability, said in a statement Monday. “If Amazon wants to retain the privilege of selling its proprietary goods to U.S. consumers, it has both a moral and legal obligation to deliver more than empty assurances that it’s operating a clean supply chain.”
Among the companies listed was Esquel Group, a Hong Kong-based manufacturer supplying shirts for brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. The company has been in the firing line before. In May 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Esquel had established three spinning mills in Xinjiang, including Changji Esquel Textile Co. Over a period of two years, it “accepted” at least 34 Uyghurs offered by officials as workers through a state-sanctioned labor-transfer scheme, the outlet said. Esquel disputed that characterization the following September, saying that the candidates were hired following its standard recruitment process and that it “deeply opposes” forced labor.
By then, Esquel was also protesting the Commerce Department’s inclusion of Changji Esquel on the so-called Entity List for “engaging in or enabling activities contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States.” It ended up heading to court multiple times, although a federal judge ultimately rejected its request to strike Changji Esquel from the blacklist, which bars companies from purchasing American technology and components without a special dispensation.
In October, Esquel vowed to appeal the decision and continue to use litigation to “seek an end” to what it says is Changji Esquel’s “mistaken” inclusion, which has caused “substantial, ongoing and irreparable harms” to its business. Hugo Boss quietly dropped the supplier from its factory list in February after a Buzzfeed story raised questions about its forced labor ”red flags.”
“Esquel has never, and will never, use forced or coerced labor,” a representative told Sourcing Journal. “We morally oppose the use of forced labor, which is completely contrary to our principles and the business practices by which we have operated for more than 40 years. Our strong traceability standards, in collaboration with a highly regarded third-party platform, ensure that we do not trade, sell or export products that have been prohibited in specific jurisdictions.”
Amazon said that it complies with the laws and regulations in the jurisdictions in which it operates and expects its suppliers to adhere to its supply chain standards. “We take allegations of human rights abuses seriously, including those related to the use or export of forced labor,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Whenever we find or receive proof of forced labor, we take action.”
According to Amazon’s responsible sourcing program website, the company engages in “robust supplier due diligence, prioritizing mechanisms that drive continuous improvement.” It said that it’s “committed to working with our suppliers to remedy issues and establish systems to prevent future issues.” In 2020, Amazon conducted 4,708 assessments to help it determine which suppliers to onboard and then “continually understand and improve” those suppliers’ practices.
Campaign for Accountability avers, however, that Amazon’s continued use of suppliers with “well-documented ties” to forced labor in Xinjiang undermines its “stated intolerance” of human-rights violations in its supply chain. Some third-party sellers on its site even advertise the use of Xinjiang cotton. The issue, the organization added, is bound to become more critical when the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which creates a “rebuttable presumption” that all products from Xinjiang have been made by forced labor and therefore banned from entering the United States, goes into effect in June.
“The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act not only empowers but directs U.S. customs officials to no longer operate under the presumption of innocence with companies importing goods tied to Xinjiang,” Kuppersmith said. “Substantial evidence suggests Amazon has not done even the most basic due diligence. If Amazon continues to ignore this problem, customs officials have no choice but to intervene.”